(Image: AAP/Kelly Barnes)

Shock jock Alan Jones again courted controversy this week, saying that Australia is now “facing the health version of global warming. Exaggeration in almost everything. Certainly in description, and certainly in behaviour.”

But the latest statistics from the World Health Organisation show alarm is somewhat necessary when dealing with the global threat of coronavirus. COVID-19 so far has a fatality rate of between 1% and 4% — up to 40 times higher than the 0.1% fatality rate of the flu. 

With many of the comparisons between the impacts of coronavirus and influenza taking numbers from the US, let’s look at how the statistics measure in Australia.

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Fatality doesn’t compare

In 2018, the flu (or pneumonia, mostly caused by the flu) killed 3102 people in Australia, around 5% of the 58,570 laboratory-confirmed cases from that year. But this fatality rate is grossly over-represented: many people with the flu do not get tested. 

Professor Robert Booy, head of clinical research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance told Crikey that during any given winter the flu infects between 5% to 25% of the population. Of those cases, just a fraction are fatal.

“The seasonal death rate on a population basis is one in 1000 to 10,000 worldwide,” he said. That makes a fatality rate of 0.1% to 0.01%.

But COVID-19 is much more severe. “Coronavirus will be at least 10% more deadly than seasonal influenza,” Booy said. 

Data from the John Hopkins University coronavirus resource centre records a world-wide fatality rate much higher than that. At time of writing there are 214,894 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 8732 deaths — an initial fatality rate of just over 4%.

We’ll have to wait for better data to be able to say that with clarity, however — thanks to a shortage of testing kits and limited information at the start of the outbreak, many infected people with mild symptoms wouldn’t have gotten tested. This could mean a lower fatality rate of 1%

Given Australia doesn’t have enough intensive care beds to manage potentially huge numbers of critically ill people, flattening the curve of infection is incredibly important.

Australia’s horror flu season of 2017, which killed 1,255 people throughout the year does compare to the coronavirus, with a standardised death rate of 3.9 per 100,000 persons.

The difference comes down to who is susceptible.

Demographics don’t compare

In Australia in 2018 those who died from the flu had a median age of 89.3.

“Ninety per cent of those who die from the flu in Australia are over 65, and most are over 75,” Booy said. 

The coronavirus, however, is dangerous not just to those over 65, but people over 50, too. A study conducted last month from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found the virus killed 14.8% of people over 80 who contracted the disease, 11.6% of those aged 60 to 79, and 1.3% of those aged 50 to 59.

Patients ages 10 to 19 had the same chance of dying from COVID-19 as patients in their twenties and thirties. 

So far, six people have died in Australia from the coronavirus. The youngest was 77 years old. 

What does it have in common? 

Both coronavirus and influenza are contagious viruses which cause respiratory illness, and present very similarly, Booy said. 

“They both present with an upper respiratory infection, especially cough, fever, malaise, tiredness and shortness of breath.” 

The difference? One is anywhere between 10 and 40 times more likely to kill you than the flu. Wash your hands, and keep your distance from others.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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